After the end of the line, when the Shadowcat has faded from the corner of her eye and the forest her parents once lived in has lost its tangled undead roots, when everything is settled, Fig and Jawbone and Ayda and the Manor and all the rest of them – after the end, someone knocks on Sandralynn’s door.
She jerks up, arm deep in a box. Her old house is empty – it hadn’t actually sold yet, when Sandralynn had moved out for the manor, so she’d managed to snatch it back on their return (and that’s its own kind of funny, that Sandralynn promised to do better and then didn’t even make it out the fucking door). Jawbone has gracefully kept his promise to let Fig and her friends stay with him, and Sandralynn insisted on postponing any housewarming until after everyone got at least a week of sleep, after the nightmare insomnia they’d just pulled through. She would give anything to have Fig live with her, of course. But Sandralynn doesn’t have the money to house Ayda, too, and all of Fig’s friends are at the Manor, and frankly, Jawbone is just a better parental figure anyway. Fig hasn’t officially decided where she wants to stay, but Sandralynn isn’t optimistic.
She dusts off her jeans as she stands. Maybe she’d forgotten something at the manor – or maybe Gorthalax left something here when he helped her move the boxes up? He was always a bit of a scatterbrain, when it came to the basic routines. At the time, it was annoying, but in retrospect, it was human of him. Endearing.
When Sandralynn opens the door, a goblin woman is shifting, nervous, between her feet, with a bottle tucked under her arm.
“Oh,” says Sandralynn, stupidly – and then relaxes as she fully takes in the figure before her. “Sklonda!”
Sklonda smiles up, a little sheepish under the fringe of her bangs. Her face is half freckles and half wrinkles, strict and serene. “Sorry for calling so late,” she says. “I told Gorthalax to ask you about meeting tonight, but apparently, he forgot, so I figured I would just. Come over.”
“No worries!” Sandralynn smiles. Her grin is tired – she hasn’t had an expression that isn’t tired in years now – but it’s sincere, and Sklonda matches it, exhaustion for exhaustion, delight for delight. “You should know, we’re not doing any housewarming for at least a week, if we do any at all.”
Sklonda shifts again, back and forth. Sandralynn’s smile fades. “I know.” Sklonda chews the inside of her cheek for a moment. “I was hoping we could…girl talk, I guess.”
Sandralynn has a hand on the doorframe again. She swallows. “We’re a little old for sleepovers, aren’t we?” she says, working to keep her voice light and teasing.
Sklonda looks up again, big yellow eyes under her lashes, laughter lines etched into the sides of them. “I…” She falters, and looks at Sandralynn’s house, big, empty, what once held a family. Sklonda’s face is quiet, inquisitive. She’s a very smart woman. “…I’m not here to make you talk about Jawbone,” she says, barely more than whisper, and Sandralynn’s shoulders tense and sag all at once, a little breath escaping her. “I don’t want you to be alone, tonight. If you don’t want to be.”
It’s a sweet sentiment. But Sandralynn, looking with a dry mouth at the bottle in Sklonda’s hand, was not worried about moralizing. She is looking at the champagne (probably shitty, and cheap, and delicious for it, in the way that something tastes terrible but is associated with all sorts of delightful memories), and she is thinking of getting drunk in a bar on Leviathan, and of the way Gorthalax and Sklonda hold hands, and she is thinking about who she is and what she’s done.
Sklonda is kind, and giving, and good. Sandralynn wants to say, Don’t come in with me. She wants to say, I’m bad. I’ll rip everything apart at the seams with hands that are immortal and unstable and make kids grow up too fast for their failures. She wants to say, I’ll ruin your relationship, if you let me.
I’ll ruin you, if you let me.
But her face softens, and she steps aside to let Sklonda in, because Sandralynn Faeth is not a good person.
“I heard about the nightmare forest,” Sklonda says.
Sandralynn finishes chewing before she answers, slow. She didn’t have much food to offer – just frozen ravioli – but Sklonda had been glad for whatever Sandralynn could make, or at least was too polite to say otherwise. They’re eating in what was once and will again be a living room, boxes spread out as tables between the sofa and recliner that they’ve settled on. “How’s Riz doing?” she says after she takes the moment to think about it.
Sklonda smiles at her food. “Good,” she says, and her voice goes soft for Riz in a way that Sandralynn recognizes, a little worried and a little proud and a lot love. “He’s – you know he saw his Dad, on the adventure? In Heaven?”
“I heard.” Sandralynn reaches across the table touch Sklonda’s hand, brief, an offer of consolation. Sklonda leans into the touch, but, to Sandralynn’s relief, she doesn’t look sad – just that same, soft love and pride. “He did great out there, you know. Invaluable work.”
Sklonda laughs. “I’m not surprised about that. I’m more glad that he – “ She shakes her head, smiling. “Well, he came back and asked for permission for a sleepover.”
Sandralynn cracks a smile back. “It was a big week, for sure.”
Sklonda’s chuckles fade after a moment,. “He’s grown so much,” she says, voice brimming with fondness. Another second and that fades, too, to something more serious, eyes fixated in the moment once more, across the table at Sandralynn. “But that wasn’t what I was talking about. I – “ She pauses. “The kids have each other, and I’m glad for that, but – “
Sandralynn waits, hoping and dreading at once, lips pursed. Sklonda flips their hands so that hers is overtop Sandralynn’s, now – squeezes. “…if you want someone to talk to,” she offers, quiet.
Sandralynn starts to pull her hand back – stops herself. Sets her food down on the box. Closes her eyes.
(She is in the forest of Sylvaire.
She is in the forest of the Nightmare King. They are the same. Her people walked this land once. Her parents told her stories about it, when she was young, lamenting the loss as they watched Solace grow against the trees. This was a beautiful place, years and years and years ago. It is ruined now.
Like you, Kalina said, standing over Sandralynn’s body as she was torn apart from the inside.)
“I don’t know why she kept us alive,” she says, because she is just tipsy enough that it slips through – and, at Sklonda’s questioning look, “Kalina. Ragh and Tracker and I – we were still infected – Riz has explained the infection to you - ?”
“I know enough,” Sklonda says.
Sandralynn nods, leans back, suddenly even more tired than before. “I can’t imagine what the kids went through,” Sandralynn says, and her voice is quaking despite herself, the way she can’t let it in front of the teens she has chaperoned, the way she can’t let it when she is alone. “What she could’ve done to them…I can’t even begin to think about it.” She pauses.
“I should be helping them," she says.
Sklonda doesn’t stop her – or, perhaps, Sklonda can’t stop her, because she finds it difficult to pause, to take more than the breath she absolutely needs to tell the story. “I’m the adult. I was there to support them. And instead – “ She does pull her hands back, this time, to rub her eyes. “You know what Fig said, when we were on the way home? She asked if I wanted to talk. She said she would be there for me.”
“She’s a good kid,” Sklonda says, eyes tracked to Sandralynn’s face.
Sandralynn chokes a laugh. “She’s a fantastic kid. And I love her so fucking much.” It’s easy, with her hands already on her eyes, to just bury her face in them, to cover herself from Sklonda’s gaze, from the terrible sight of the house she lives in. “And fucking none of that is from me.”
The silence rests for a moment, and Sandralynn isn’t sure what Sklonda is thinking, can’t see her, because all she can see in her mind’s eye is Fig walking through the forest on a marionette string of her former self, tortured and hurt and covering it up, and Kalina dragging Sandralynn behind them with chains, clawing reminders down her skin each time Fig winced and cried and hurt that Sandralynn caused this. That it was Sandralynn’s unfaithfulness that ruined her daughter and all of her fathers, that it is and has always been Sandralynn that left her greatest failures on Fig’s back.
She thinks about Kalina pointing to Ayda, watching Fig smile through the tears, and whispering, What if it doesn’t last? When have you ever survived a relationship with someone good – what makes you think Fig will not learn the worst from you, again? You’ve ruined her. You’ve ruined her. You’ve ruined her.
“I’m not a good mother,” Sandralynn whispers, to nothing but the sound of the heater. Fig has had three chances at fathers, now, and she’s chosen every last one of them over you. Can you blame her? “I don’t know how – you’re such a good mom, Sklon, and I don’t know how you do it.”
She is so dead to the world – eyes closed, caught in her thoughts, looped and looped and looped, the ruin of her touch, that black death that follows every relationship she sees – that she doesn’t realize Sklonda has moved until a pair of hands take her wrists off her face, and Sklonda reaches in to hug her.
Sandralynn crumples into it despite herself, leaned sideways where Sklonda is sitting now on the couch, a sob without tears wracking her body. Sklonda pets her hair as she loses it, rocks her back and forth, and Sklonda is so much smaller but Sandralynn still feels like a kid again, like she’s 17 and cast out and the man she loves is calling her a liar and a homewrecker. Like Sklonda is the only thing holding the pieces of her together, and if she lets go Sandralynn will fall apart, fingers and arms scattering across the floor.
“They showed me,” Sandralynn starts, and then stops because she is crying to hard, the way she hasn’t since Fig was a baby, since before she had to cover it up and be a good parent and she didn’t even do that right – “I keep trying, to be fucking, stable, and finding people who are stable, and I want it to work so bad, but I’m not – I’m not good at it, I’m not good at being a mother, I’m not good at keeping things stable, and she deserves better than that, she always has – “
Sklonda pets over her back, shushing her, soothing, under her breath. One terrible fear begets another – that Fig did not care enough to scry on her more than her girlfriend of a few days; that she is a terrible person, being happy that Fig is coming to save her, knowing the pain it would cause her daughter; that she is not made for love, that she found Gilear and Gorthalax and Jawbone, the three most stable, good father figures that could be asked for, and she abandoned them all; Kristen screaming at her outside Garthy’s room, because she is such a terrible chaperone that the kids are having to take care of her; that this is how it will always be, that she will live tens and hundreds and thousands of years and she will never settle herself, that she will never be good enough to Fig, to anyone.
It takes a few minutes to cry it all out. It’s silly, and stupid, and Sandralynn is too old to be doing these things. But Sklonda doesn’t make her talk any more about it, just gets up to find some tissues, comes back and wraps her arms around Sandralynn again and wipes the tears off her face, gaze soft. She doesn’t offer any solutions, but Sandralynn isn’t sure she needed any – just that she needed to say it, to think it, in bits and pieces, knowing that there would be a person to catch her before she scattered.
“Sorry,” Sandralynn starts, but Sklonda shakes her head.
“We’re friends,” Sklonda says. “This is what I’m here for.”
Eventually, Sandralynn gathers herself. The conversation turns back to their kids – the plans for the rest of the spring semester, birthday shenanigans coming up, any summer vacations. They eat. Sandralynn goes to the bathroom and splashes some water on her face – she doesn’t wear make-up, but her cheeks feel stained anyway.
She comes back feeling fresh and smiling. And when she sits down, through it all, Sklonda keeps them pressed together on the sofa.
When they finally start going at the champagne with real intent, Sklonda says, “You know, I actually came to apologize.”
Sandralynn’s eyes are half-lidded when she looks over. Sklonda’s always been better at holding her alcohol, even with how tiny she is, but she’s tipsy now, purposefully so judging by the way her fingers rub the side of her glass. “The hell do you have to apologize for?” Sandralynn says, lax, leaning her head against the sofa.
Sklonda looks down into her drink. “I mean – I wasn’t lying. I came for the company too. To see you.” She looks up – at the ceiling. Back down at her hands. “And – and to talk. I wanted to make sure you were okay. I wasn’t – I wanted to do that, too, I just – also – “
Sandralynn lets an eyebrow quirk, lets Sklonda gather herself, struggling to breathe. Sandralynn can’t reconcile the idea of Sklonda blushing, between how mature and good and put together she is, but that’s definitely what’s happening now, blue dusting over her cheeks.
“…Riz told me how Kalina’s curse got spread,” she says, deliberately not looking at Sandralynn.
“…and if I…” Sklonda clears her throat. “…if I had it when we…met…”
Sandralynn sits up straight.
“Oh,” she says. She thought they weren’t talking about that.
Sklonda’s fingers have stopped moving on her glass, but they’ve gone unnatural tight, blood leaving her knuckles. “So,” she says, a little lamely. “If I…infected you. Please know that – “ She looks up again, eyes glowing in the dim light of the room, and Sandralynn’s heart turns over.
(Sklonda and Sandralynn met a little less than a year ago, now, with Sklonda introducing herself as, “Between Gilear and Gorthalax, I’ve heard a lot, and I want the facts straight from you.”
Being a parent hadn’t left Sandralynn a lot of time for – friends. Or anything, really, outside of ‘being a parent’ and work. Sandralynn’s life was Fig and Baxter. To find someone who…understood, really? They had talked for hours. Hours and hours.
And when they drank a little more than maybe was appropriate, Sklonda laughed and said, “And after the fight, Riz pulled me aside and pointed at Gorthalax and said – he said, ‘Mom, do what you want, but he’s so big, and we’re goblins, so think it through first.”’
And after they had finished laughing, Sandralynn had leaned over the couch and said, “If you’re looking at Gorthalax, I have a few tricks I know he likes.” She put her hand on Sklonda’s knee. Sklonda’s breath caught. “If you’re interested…I could show them to you.”
Sklonda had looked up at her with that big blue blush, the same one she has now, and her big yellow eyes, and her mouth wet from the alcohol and looking to die for. And she had smiled, and said, “I have a few tricks of my own, if you want to make it an even trade.”
Sandralynn doesn't remember the entire night. But she remembers - fingers, long and lithe, calloused palms tracing her muscles; a taste like coffee and beer; wet gasping, tugging on hair. She doesn't remember the entire night, but she remembers enough.)
They haven’t talked about it. Gorthalax and Sklonda are happy, and Sandralynn loves having a friend, loves knowing nothing is expected of her, and they haven’t talked about it.
“…if I’d known,” Sklonda is saying, firmly, when Sandralynn tunes back in, “then I would’ve warned you. I’m – I directly caused you to go through that, and I wanted you to know that I’m sorry, and I didn’t know. And – if there’s anything I can do – “
I can think of something you can do, Sandralynn thinks, in her mind’s eye with Sklonda’s hair spread out on the pillow and that Thing she did with her fingers, and I will ruin you, I will ruin you, I will ruin you.
“Sklon, you’ve got nothing to apologize for,” she forces past the alcohol, shaking her hair out of her eyes. “You didn’t know. You couldn’t have. And – “ A wry smile, despite herself. “Even if I’d known? It was worth it.”
They sit in that silence for a moment. Sklonda looks at Sandralynn, and Sandralynn looks back, and they are both thinking about the same thing, thinking of when Sandralynn woke with Sklonda’s hair in her mouth, thinking of hands and mouths and touch and connection, thinking of Sklonda staying on the couch waiting to hear something when Riz left with nothing but a cipher, thinking of complaining about Gorthalax and Jawbone over the phone, thinking about Kalina.
You ruin everything you touch, you ruin everyone you touch, I’ll ruin you, I’ll ruin you.
“You should head home,” Sandralynn says into the silence.
In the next few minutes, Sklonda will get up, and grab her bag, and stumble out the door to the cab Sandralynn calls her. She will go home to a man she is faithful to who loves her and she will have a life waiting for her, calm, orderly, stable, and a son who she has passed on her best to, and a life that she’s earned and built with her bare hands. She is good, and deserves it, and Sandralynn will not stop her. She won’t.
“I said I didn’t want you to be alone tonight, and I meant it,” Sklonda says, quiet. And she does not stand up from the couch.